A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Okay, I promise not to do any more Charles Dickens quotations. In case you have not guessed, the two cities I am talking about are Shenzhen, just round the corner from Hong Kong in southern China, and Doha, the capital of Qatar. Why do I want to write about these two in particular? Because Irena and I were living in Doha for five years, just before we came here to the Middle Kingdom. So what are our memories of Qatar (and Doha in particular)?

The Doha skyline, complete with giant orange cucumber

In many ways, Doha is not so different from Shenzhen because it is a modern city. Like Shenzhen, most of Doha did not exist thirty or forty years ago. Yes, it has loads of skyscrapers and some impressive (and even whacky) modern buildings, just like SZ, and there are even some parks. Both cities are near the sea. But that is where the similarities end. Doha was built by Nepalis, Indians, Filipinos, and anyone else that the Qataris could get to do the work. Shenzhen, on the other hand, was built by the Chinese. Okay, they did hire a few foreign architects perhaps, but all of the real work was done by Chinese workers.

 
Dune bashing
As for the parks, the ones in Doha are totally artificial. The Aspire Park has loudspeakers playing fake birdsong. The green areas in Doha only exist because they are constantly watered by sprinkler systems, while Shenzhen’s parks are working with nature, not against it. 
Then there is the trash. Qataris love going to the Aspire Park in the evening, and to the green areas along the Corniche. They have their family picnic and then they use the park as a garbage dump. They think that it does not matter how much trash they throw onto the grass because hey, it will all be cleaned up in the morning by an army of Filipinos and Nepalis.

Let's have a canal in a mall in a desert
And please do not get me started on the subject of racism in Qatar. I will never forget going to one of my favourite buildings in Doha, the beehive-shaped post office near to the Corniche. There were two long lines of us, all expats from different countries, queueing at the counter to be served by the black abayya-wearing Qatari ladies on the other side of the glass. In the next queue to mine there was a young black chap, probably from Africa, and he had just got to the front of his queue when a young Qatari man suddenly appeared, pushed in front of him and declared, “Qataris have priority.” 

All along the line, you could feel a wave of helpless indignation at that Qatari’s arrogant behaviour and sympathy for that poor black man, as we were unable to do anything about such dreadful racism. The black-clad lady behind the counter said nothing and just got on with serving the Qatari scumbag. Hospitality, an important tradition in Arabia, ought to mean that being rude to a guest is something that should never happen, but maybe these old-fashioned rules do not apply in modern-day Doha.



Irisha in SZ's Central Park
Two DHOWS, for Scrabble fans


And what about Shenzhen? Yes, it is true that skin colour is an issue. Black people do get stared at and fingers are pointed, but really it is more because they are a novelty. To be honest, Chinese people do have the idea that having white skin means that you are superior, more upper class. That is why so many skin-whitening products are sold in pharmacies and of course that is why the Chinese ladies will use their parasols as soon as the sun starts shining. So maybe prejudice in SZ is more hidden, less blatant. On the other hand, American films featuring coloured actors probably give Chinese people the idea that meeting black people is unusual, exciting, exotic and very non-Chinese.


If this is the case, then hooray for Hollywood. I heard of one black girl who thought it was funny (and maybe flattering) that everyone in China called her "Beyonce". But if your skin is the wrong colour in Qatar, then it will definitely be the worst of times for you and for your family. 

So was it a good idea to leave Doha and come to Shenzhen? Yes, it was a far, far better thing.   

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